E. Herbert Norman

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Norman as a youth.

Egerton Herbert Norman (September 1, 1909 – April 4, 1957) was a Canadian diplomat and historian. Born in Japan to missionary parents, he became an historian of modern Japan before joining the Canadian foreign service. His most influential book was Japan's Emergence as a Modern State (1940) argued that persisting feudal class relations were responsible for government oppression at home and the imperialistic expansion that led to World War II in Asia. During the Red Scare of the 1950s he was accused of being a communist or even a spy, though investigations found no corroboration and he was defended by Canadian authorities. He committed suicide in 1957.

Early life and education[edit]

Born and raised in Karuizawa, Japan where his father, Daniel Norman, was a Canadian Methodist missionary in Nagano province.[1] He studied at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, and Trinity College at Cambridge University. He entered the graduate program in Japanese history at Harvard University in 1936, where he studied under Serge Elisséeff, the Russian émigrée Japanologist. He joined the Canadian foreign service in 1939 and earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1940. During his time in Cambridge, he was a Marxist. "[H]e became heavily involved in the Socialist community and left wing student politics. There are numerous reports suggesting that he would spend his free time recruiting new students into the student socialist body. [2] However, while his politics were left leaning, there is a controversy as to whether he remained a communist and, more importantly, whether he was a Soviet spy afterward.

His elder brother, Howard, who also became a missionary, worked in Canada during World War II to support Japanese who were placed in internment camps.[1]

Foreign service[edit]

His first post was with the Canadian Legation in Tokyo. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Norman was interned by the Japanese authorities and he was not repatriated to Canada until mid-1942, where he continued to work in the Department of External Affairs. During the Allied occupation of Japan after its defeat in the war, Norman served as a Canadian representative to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) administration and worked under the direction of Douglas MacArthur. He also became the first post-war president of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Using a close relation to MacArthur, he played a decisive role in the decision of the SCAP in 1946 to ban all Japanese political parties except Japanese communist party (JCP). [2] Alongside his diplomatic activities, Norman remained an active scholar and wrote a number of works on Japanese history, with clear political leaning toward left. This caused accusation that he was a soviet agent, which is yet unproven.

Controversy and suicide[edit]

Between 1950 and 1952, during the McCarthy Era, Norman was accused of being a Communist and possibly a Soviet agent. Allegations centred on his involvement with communist societies during his university years, and suspicion of decisions he helped make during the Japanese occupation, including allowing the Japanese Communist Party to continue while other parties were banned. Norman was eventually exonerated but American diplomats remained wary of Norman's presence in the upper echelons of External Affairs. Norman was fiercely protected by Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson, a longtime friend. This created diplomatic conflicts with the U.S. Department of State, which refused to send sensitive information through Norman. Norman was eventually made High Commissioner to New Zealand, both to placate American authorities and to isolate him from the stress and scrutiny of American intelligence.

In 1957, these suspicions were revived in the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. In April of the same year he committed suicide in Cairo, where he had been serving as Canada's ambassador to Egypt, by jumping off the roof of the Swedish Embassy.[1]It was an eight-storey apartment building in which the Swedish Minister in Cairo occupied the top floor apartment. He left a brief suicide note asserting his innocence.[3] The Canadian public at the time was horrified, and the incident caused harm to Canada-U.S. relations.

The circumstances surrounding Norman's death continue to provoke controversy. In 1990, Canadian Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark received a report written by Peyton Lyon that tried to exonerate Norman, sparking a debate with Professor James Barros who had authored a 1986 book detailing Norman's links to Communist groups. In 1994, Dr. John Howes suggested that Norman took his life because he was concerned that the Communist allegations could jeopardize the negotiations during the Suez Crisis. [1] Norman is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.


  • ——— (1943). Soldier and Peasant in Japan: The Origins of Conscription. International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific Relations. 
  • ——— (1949). Ando Shoeki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism. Asiatic Society of Japan. 
  • ——— (1975). Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E. H. Norman. edited and with an Introduction by John Dower. Random House. 


  1. ^ a b c d John Howes (December 12, 1994). "Japan in Canadian Culture". Canadian Embassy, Tokyo, Japan: The Asiatic Society of Japan. 
  2. ^ a b Mark Perkins, "Was E. Herbert Norman Really a Spy?" The Art of Polemics September 15, 2014
  3. ^ Knight, Amy (2005). How the Cold War Began. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart LMT. p. 266. ISBN 0-7710-9577-5. 

References and further reading[edit]

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